Before saxophonist Oliver Lake co-founded the overlooked-until-lately Black Artists' Group (BAG), before he appeared on records with Anthony Braxton and Michael Gregory Jackson and helped establish the World Saxophone Quartet, the heavy-hitting jazz musician dealt with the rigors of being a developing unknown, playing informal jam sessions in St. Louis nearly every day with fellow musicians, dancers and filmmakers.
It was worth it, says Lake, and some of the best times in his successful career.
The Marianna, Arkansas-born Lake moved to St. Louis with his family as a baby. "Around 1966," Lake and the experimental Black Artists' Group, a hodge-podge collection of musicians and other creatives, would get together and practice and perform in places like STL's Forest Park.
At the suggestion of Lester Bowie, the renowned St. Louis-reared trumpeter and member of the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Lake took a trip to Chicago to check out the group, who were and still are affiliated with the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM).
"I was very inspired," remembers Lake. "When I came back to St. Louis, I said we should be organized in a formal way instead of this loose organization that was getting together and having jam sessions. Then I suggested that we become a branch of the AACM. [The late saxophonist] Julius Hemphill said, 'No, why don't we form our own group?'"
Lake and others did just that, recruiting dancers who were performing in a local production of Jean Genet's The Blacks as well as poets, visual artists and filmmakers.
"There were over 50 artists during the group's inception. We got funding to rent our space, then we started a school out of that space for younger students and a performance space with weekly concerts.
"It consisted of different forms of the creative arts...that was one of the things that distinguished us from the AACM, which was strictly music," says Lake about the Chicago group that was co-founded by percussionist Alvin Fielder. "[BAG] was really responsible for my approach. I look at Black Artists' Group as being my school that I was inspired by and patterned my career from the experiences I had in the Black Artists' Group."
For three years, Lake explains, the group was a vibrant and vital outlet for him. The group's legacy was captured in Benjamin Looker's 2004 book, Point from which creation begins: The Black Artists' Group of St. Louis.
But in 1972, the St. Louis incarnation of BAG essentially disbanded when Hemphill moved to New York and Lake, Joseph Bowie, Baikida Carroll, Floyd LeFlore and Charles "Bobo" Shaw tried to make a go of it in Paris, an avant-garde jazz center, which, at the time, included American experimentalists like reedist Frank Wright, drummer Muhammad Ali and pianist Bobby Few.
"We didn't have any records out. Nobody really knew who we were so we went there kind of blind," explains Lake.
Eventually, the group found themselves sharing the stage with cats like Wayne Shorter and Herbie Hancock. "All of these people were like, 'Who are these guys?,'" says Lake, referring to his St. Louis crew that self-produced a record called In Paris, Aries 1973 that Rank and File re-issued in 2011 in an edition of 300.
In 1974, Lake landed in New York and struggled to make a name for himself.
"I realized that I wasn't going to have any success in New York until I started doing the things that I had learned in the Black Artists' Group. By that, I mean the fact that I was into self production...we didn't really wait for things to happen, we had to make things happen."
In 1978, Lake, Hemphill, Hamiet Bluiett and David Murray eventually formed the World Saxophone Quartet, a non-rhythm-section ensemble that has a healthy discography and still sounds ahead of its time. Lake also went on to found Passin' Thru, a non-profit that doubles as an educational concert presenter and an independent record label.
Today, the Montclair, New Jersey-based musician is active in so many projects, ranging from a 17-piece big band and a guest-artist spot in Tar Baby to painting, writing poetry and holding down the saxophone chair in TRIO 3, which is scheduled to perform Saturday at the Eldorado Ballroom in Third Ward Houston.
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Rounding out the group is drummer Andrew Cyrille, an unreal percussionist who has worked with Cecil Taylor and Milford Graves, and bassist Reggie Workman, one of the greatest living legends in jazz who played with John Coltrane and Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers.
"Sound is very important for all musicians that I play with and Andrew and Reggie have a distinct sound. They're both premier musicians and excellent creators when they're doing their improvisations," says Lake, who estimates the group's creation as happening in the early 1980s.
"It brings out the best in me because I feel like I'm playing with the best. It's very inspirational and that's how we've been able to keep the group together and why we're excited to play with each other even after so many years."
TRIO 3 is scheduled to perform at 8 p.m. Saturday, February 16, at the Eldorado Ballroom, 2310 Elgin Street. For tickets and information, visit the Nameless Sound website.